You can hardly swing a cat in Georgia without hitting one of chef Hugh Acheson's five restaurants. Or walk into a bookstore without seeing one of his three cookbooks. Or turn on your TV without seeing him smirking on the set of Top Chef, or go online without seeing one of his many (hilarious) videos. In the sixth episode of The Eater Upsell (transcript below), hosts Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner get deep with Acheson, one of the smartest, savviest chefs working today, talking about how to play to the reality TV editors, reclaiming Home Ec, and the one unbreakable rule of eating poutine.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, or subscribe via RSS or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Here's the transcript of our conversation in The Eater Upsell Episode 6: Hugh Acheson, edited to the main interview. Want to listen to Helen and Greg hypothesize that crappy nightclubs are to Leonardo DiCaprio what Key West was to Hemingway? You'll just have to listen to the audio above.
Helen Rosner: Welcome to the Eater Upsell, Hugh.
Hugh Acheson: Well thanks! It's good to be upselling.
Greg Morabito: Clearly
Helen: Do you upsell often?
Hugh: No, actually we downsell. I have a theory that upselling doesn't really get you customers for the long term.
Greg: Are you serious about that? Downselling?
Hugh: Mm-hmm - yeah, so if somebody looks at a $75 bottle of wine on the list, we'll point them to a $50 and hope that they'll come back and get another one.
Greg: Oh, that's cool. That totally works on me though, with the wine.
Helen: It creates so much trust.
Hugh: It's trust and belief in your systems, that everything you curate is actually meant to be good, regardless of the price point. There's no "cheap" in our restaurant, there's "inexpensive". We like to say.
Helen: That's a good turn of phrase.
Helen: Hugh, you are one of the leading figures in the, I hate using this phrase because it sounds so reductive, but the Southern food renaissance that I feel has swept the rest of the country in the last couple of years.
Hugh: Really? OK.
Helen: But you're not Southern.
Hugh: Right. I am —
Helen: You have a secret.
Hugh: I have a secret. I'm secretly Canadian. So yes, I'm a displaced Canadian from Ottawa, Ontario.
Helen: Ottawa's like the south of Canada? Right?
Hugh: Where everybody lives in Canada is the south of Canada, because if you live in the north of Canada you are a whale. Literally.
Helen: Or a bear.
Hugh: Or a bear, but they're not many of those left. Yeah, but I've been in the South for — I lived here for 4 years, or I lived in the southern United States for 4 years when I was 10-14, and then moved back when I was 25 and I've been here ever since. I'm now 87 years old.
Helen: What brought you?
Greg: You look great for 87 by the way.
Helen: What's your skin care secret?
Hugh: Coconut oil.
Greg: I feel like a lot of the coolest Americans are secretly Canadian expats. Do you and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young ever hang out and talk about unusual identity?
Hugh: I'm more of a —
Helen: Drake! Drake is Canadian.
Hugh: Yeah Drake's Canadian. I'm more of a Bryan Adams, Alex Trebeck type of —
Greg: Oh yeah.
Hugh: — posse. Yes, yes.
Helen: Bryan Adams doesn't really pretend to be American though, does he?
Hugh: He's pretending to be something, I'm not sure what. An entertainer.
Helen: Maybe that's it.
Greg: Where did you grow up in Canada?
Greg: How was childhood in Ottawa? Is that a city you still love? Still hold a candle for?
Hugh: It's really boring but it's a great town. It's very pretty. It's the center of government there so it's the capital city and it's good. I went to an inner city high school that was a great high school, I didn't pay attention, I skipped school a lot and played snooker. And I worked after school, so starting when I was 14 I was cooking in various kitchens around the city. Realizing that I paid much more attention to cooking than I did schoolwork.
Greg: What was your first job?
Hugh: A dishwasher at a place called Bank Street Café, which I think is not there anymore.
Greg: Were you stoked doing that job? Or were you like I got to move up to something else?
Hugh: I was relatively stoked just watching. I was really young, fourteen, fifteen years old watching these journeyman. Real journeyman cooks, line cooks who were giving it their all every day in a place that wasn't very good. To me it was cool watching these guys work. A lot of them had ideas of doing other jobs, but this was the skill set they were relying on for the present term. So I kind of went through high school and then went to University knowing how to cook, learning how to cook, and cooking at better and better restaurants. I always thought oh it would be great trade to have just in case, but it eventually became the thing I did.
Greg: So it was maybe your backup or something?
Hugh: It was a backup.
Greg: Where'd you go to school? Where'd you go to college?
Hugh: Went to Concordia University, studied political philosophy for two years, but very similar to my high schooling I didn't really pay attention, skipped a lot of school. Yeah.
Helen: Political philosophy feels like it might have some weird lateral help running a kitchen though. You could be like "Listen, I know how to effectively manipulate large groups of people".
Hugh: Let's sit down and talk about Kierkegaard. Yes and no. I mean, it teaches you some relative notion of leadership. I think real leadership is being yourself, and having an apt willingness to do whatever job is in front of you regardless of your position.
Greg: In the first phase of your life as a chef what was the thing you were interested in? What were you good at? Was it making omelettes, or pasta, or something?
Hugh: When I was 16 years old, I remember walking into a kitchen and somebody being like "Oh I'm glad you're here". I was like "Wait a minute, you're like 40 why are you glad I'm here?" It was just, I was good at whatever I did in the kitchens, I tried really hard and it showed. I wouldn't say there was really one thing that I was really good at. I could butcher really well, butcher chickens really well, really quickly, things like that.
Helen: What brought you back to the South?
Hugh: My wife's American. She and I were living in Canada, she wanted to get her Master's so we went to Athens, Georgia. I had been working in pretty fine dining Canada at an old old school French restaurant called Henry Berger, it's now closed, but it was in existence for 86 years, and was a very big diplomat hangout type of restaurant. Really old school French. It was a great restaurant. I arrived in Athens, Georgia, which is a great town, but culinarily it was a little podunk at the time. You know, it was in the 80's or 90's, sorry, 1996. It was a little wishy-washy in the world of cuisine at that point in time.
Helen: It was a big music town.
Hugh: It was a big music town. It was a great town, it just didn't have much foodwise. I worked there for two years at a restaurant called The Last Resort, and kind of ran the front of the house and the kitchen, did everything in a very busy restaurant. Then moved to San Francisco for two years and worked a number of jobs out there. Worked at a place called Mecca which is a dinner club.
Helen: I have eaten there.
Hugh: It's closed now.
Helen: That's ridiculous.
Hugh: I have this history of closed restaurants.
Greg: What was Mecca all about?
Helen: That was the first place I ever had tuna tartare.
Hugh: Yeah. It was a tuna tartare type restaurant.
Helen: These waffle cut potato chips.
Hugh: That would be —
Helen: This was like '98 or something.
Hugh: I was probably back there in the kitchen.
Greg: Hugh might have cooked that for you!
Helen: That's crazy.
Hugh: At that point in time the restaurant was run, it was very nightclubby restaurant verging on the Castro. A lot of cocktails type of thing. Drag Sundays. It was interesting, but it was a good restaurant. It was really really busy. Mike Fennelly was the chef there at the time, who had his name in New Orleans and Santa Fe, New Mexico back in the day. I worked there and then left there and went to open Gary Danko, stayed there. Douglas Keane and I came on as sous chefs. Dougie was the executive sous chef and I was right underneath him. We were there 4 months prior to opening – tiling the floor, doing all that sort of stuff. Then we opened and I think I left 2 months, very shortly after it opened.
Greg: Did you cotton to the San Francisco culinary vibe? Were you into it or was it not at all your thing?
Hugh: You know, I love San Francisco, but it's changed a fair bit in the last few years with living wage regulations and things like that. If you're earning $32,000 a year in San Francisco, and it takes you 45 minutes to get to work, life's not great. It's a little miserable. Working in kitchens at that point in time, working 16-17 hours a day. A little debilitating after awhile. Then I got an offer to go back to Athens. We opened our first restaurant, which is Five & Ten, that was 18 years ago now.
Greg: 18 years ago. Wow. That is along time for a restaurant.
Hugh: Yeah. Coconut oil.
Helen: You rub coconut oil all over the restaurant.
Greg: All over — mm-hmm
Hugh: All over the restaurant and my body.
Helen: It keeps everything young.
Helen: I didn't think I realized that you worked with Douglas Keane —
Helen: So, Douglas won Top Chef Masters —
Hugh: He did!
Helen: Was it Season 4? That was the season after —
Hugh: I had that little video show after it online, or whatever, with the sous chefs. Battle of the Sous Chefs.
Helen: Top Chef has been a really interesting part of your life.
Hugh: It has been. It's waning. I'm really not on that much this season. I'm on a couple of episodes. We still like it but it's busy, it’s a lot of work to do, it's a lot of time to commit to. We love it, it's fun and it's given me a lot of opportunities. I got into that — I said no to Top Chef many, many times, then when they called me about Top Chef Masters I figured "Oh, it's for charity. At least I'll have an excuse."
Greg: Why did you say no the original times? You're thinking "Oh it's a little— "
Hugh: I was really busy with operating a single, my own, restaurant. I was the wine guy, the accountant, the plumber, the guy doing all the butchering, making all the food. There was just not much time. By the time Top Chef Masters called I was just about to open Empire State South, so that's five years ago, and I had opened up the National. So when you open up multiple places, you begin to realize that if you want it, you've actually covered your bases so you can begin to do some other things. And so I said yes and went on there, and it was a really funny, weird, odd experience competing. It was a great cast, it was a really interesting group.
Helen: Was that the year Cosentino won?
Hugh: No that was the year after I think. What's his name? Floyd Cardoz won.
Helen: That was it!
Hugh: There was George Mendes, and Mary Sue Milliken, and Traci Des Jardins —
Helen: It's like a murderer's row of amazing cooks.
Hugh: All these people, Suvir Saran —
Helen: Yes! That was — he was amazing!
Greg: He was hilarious on that season.
Hugh: His best was his dramatic readings of the [Eater] recaps, which were written by Eddie Huang.
Greg: Oh yeah? He would read them?
Hugh: Which were hilarious! I quickly figured out after the first episode, where I actually lost and was then invited back —
Helen: I remember that! It was very dramatic.
Hugh: It was really dramatic because some other chef didn't show, couldn't do it anymore. I lost for something, for a salty scallop, whatever, and I get this call back at the hotel being like, "Well, can you come back?" I was like, "That's not really how this works." But I did, and then I lasted a really long time. Butu I learned a lot in the first episode and a half, which is that these people are all amazingly talented, interesting chefs and they're not saying anything. So I jumped into this format of well, I might as well crack a lot of jokes and be a jackass. Very successfully.
Greg: I remember that. With Restaurant Wars I remember them saying, "Oh, Hugh's such a showman."
Helen: You were saying before that Top Chef has been really huge for you. I think there are lots of cooks for whom Top Chef has been really huge, but for you it's been huge in such a different way.
Hugh: It's a really different way because —
Helen: It launched this hosting career.
Hugh: — yeah, the hosting stuff which has been great, and that kind of solidifies you within the franchise, and you get the benefits of that. There are — even now if you went through the people who are on last season of Top Chef, I would remember three of them? Which, 'm sure I love you all but —
Helen: —but you're totally unmemorable.
Hugh: It's a machine. It just kind of spews people out and that's fine, but very rarely do people come out of it, you can name the people that really come out of it and really have taken it and launched their careers. Stephanie Izard, Dale Talde's done so good, um —
Helen: Now we're reaching to find more names.
Hugh: We are, we're done. That's it. No, I mean — The Voltaggios, Richard Blais has done really well.
Helen: For sure.
Hugh: There are a number of them, but for that many people, that is like 5 percent of the chefs who have competed on Top Chef. And it's not always the winners who do that well, they're plenty of people that won who faded into anonymity as well. So, but, you know — the thing with me is, I hope it's never perceived as a one-trick pony, I do write books and I am an actual chef, I have four restaurants, so —
Helen: You're multi-talented.
Hugh: We hope so.
Greg: This TV stuff, do you enjoy it? You think it's fun? Or, what's the —?
Hugh: I do it because I made a pact with the devil a long time ago and I can't figure out how to get out of it.
Helen: I think what you said though. You realized — especially on Masters. So like Top Chef regular — Top Chef prime — and Top Chef Masters are such different shows.
Hugh: They are.
Helen: They have such different vibes because I think the talent pool, especially now that we're in later seasons of Top Chef-Top Chef, these are folks who are using this as a springboard to achieve fame.
Helen: Or to put themselves out in front of investors. It's this live multi-episode —
Hugh: Yeah and the Masters are already there.
Helen: The Masters are chefs who are known names and established presences. For you to realize that there was this hole, and you're like "I'm smart and funny and weird and I can do this thing".
Hugh: Floyd Cardoz is a beautiful human and an amazingly skilled chef. He unfortunately when put in front of the camera really wants to talk about his family over and over again. Which is great, but they're going to use that once.
Hugh: And it'll be a nice, little beautiful story line for a second, but sarcasm and making fun of situations, which I like doing, is imminently repeatable in different ways, and is a medium that is fun. I think the thing I enjoy most, and I'm hoping that I've gained the allowance to do this in this industry, is I feel like I'm now capable and willing to make fun of an industry that people are really — there are so many sacred cows in this industry. You guys are famous for it too, in a lot of ways, at Eater. But I'm kind of famous for it too. I don't mind calling out the people we are.
Helen: Do you ever get in trouble?
Hugh: No. Not really. I'm sure there's some people that probably want to kick me in the nuts. That's okay. I sometimes want to kick myself in the nuts. It's hard.
Greg: Did the Top Chef stuff open up other opportunities to do things with your business? To do things with the cookbook stuff? Or was that already kind of —
Hugh: No. The cookbook stuff was already in the works. The Beard Awards were already pretty much — that was separate, which was nice. I didn't want the accolades to come from the magnifying glass of television. I don't think they did. Has it given me other things that have been very bountiful to me and I'm very blessed with? Yes. Obviously, it allows for other gigs and jobs that become lucrative and are great. It allows more investors and things like that if you want them. I'm always hesitant about that though. You know, I have four restaurants, I'm majority shareholder of all of them, and enjoy it. I like what I've created and I have control over.
Greg: It's a pretty broad question, but what has been your strategy for expansion over the years? You go from one restaurant that's 18 years old.
Greg: The second one was, what? 5 or 6 years after that?
Hugh: Yes, I think it was 6 years after that.
Greg: Was that a big leap? Was that like a really —
Hugh: Yeah. I don't get dubbed as, like, "geez, that guy opens a lot of restaurants". 4 over 18 years is not really a churning them out Chipotle-style.
Helen: It's a sustainable pace.
Hugh: It is. And it's a pace that hopefully — To me, I wanted to stick relatively near my home. More and more as we regionalize food, the state of Georgia has become — eh, it's my people now, and they've been very supportive, so we wanted to keep it within the state. Does that mean that someday we won't open up elsewhere? No. We just like being contained there.
Greg: What was the food idea for the first restaurant? What'd you want to do?
Hugh: I left Gary Danko kind of thinking, "God, man, fine dining is a bitch". So I wanted to do a really community-inspired restaurant. Something that would evoke a lot of the past in Southern cooking. It was kind of an exploration for me to learn more, it was also meant to be a teaching restaurant. I realized I could not put fancy tablecloths in the restaurant, and do fancy service in a really small town, and expect to survive. So it had to be a restaurant that was — people were going to come to 3 or 4 times a week and really live at. So it couldn't be overly expensive but it was high-end. I was just stubborn with it, and it worked. But it was just like my food, Southern food done with a French background, a French technique. It worked.
Helen: I'm really intrigued by this idea of a teaching restaurant. It makes perfect sense as soon as you said it. Like, if you go into a town or a community that doesn't have the — I don't know what the turn of phrase would be but the —
Hugh: With a foodie background.
Helen: — that isn't ready to support a giant white tablecloth, veal tournedos kind of thing.
Hugh: There's so many of those in the last 20 years. You can look at people — Doug Turbush in Minneapolis, you can look at Michael [Symon] in Cleveland. Those restaurants are iconic there now, but I don't think people knew what arugula was when they opened up. We opened up in 2000 with Five & Ten. So, you know, food television up until that point, that was way before Top Chef even started.
Helen: It was all home cooking food television.
Hugh: Top Chef didn't start until 2007.
Greg: No internet that we can speak of back then.
Hugh: No, but Emeril had taught the world that arugula existed. It was an amazingly important thing that people could have some connection to the food. But it was still a matter of "Sweetbreads are kind of like Chicken McNuggets and you'll really like them." But it needs to be you learning with them. It can't be so, talking down to people as it's all just a matter of —
Helen: You can't just show up and be like "I'm going to teach you what you should know."
Hugh: Which goes to a bigger extension of how I position myself in the food world. I'm not an expert in food, I am a learner. I'm constantly learning, which is why I enjoy what I do. If I was an expert I think I'd get really bored tomorrow and be like "Oh, I'm done with this". To me, we're at that stage in a young restaurant, I was a very young chef and we were learning every day what to do. And so everything was new. It was fun. It was new for the clients too, they would come and there'd be new food, specials, stuff every day. So it was very engaging.
Helen: You must have made some amazing relationship with the community and with your diners. Did you?
Hugh: Yeah, we did. I remember opening night people like Michael Stipe being there, who has become a very good friend over the years. Bertis Downs who is actually one of my, owns part of the National, he was [REM's] manager for years and years and years. It's a small town, they've become our friends. Athens is a phenomenally interesting artistic town, and we love it, and we can afford it, and I can't afford this city.
Greg: How did the buzz generate around the first restaurant? Was there one thing?
Hugh: It was hard in the first year. You know there was one thing. I'm known as being relatively stubborn and relatively ballsy, for lack of a better term. I emailed the Atlanta Journal Constitution restaurant critic, and was like "I realize that Athens isn't in your normal domain," — because we're outside of the Atlanta area and he wasn't really reviewing stuff outside there. It was John Kessler, James Beard Award-winning writer who's a really interesting guy, great restaurant critic, great writer. And I invited to come over, have dinner and review us.
Helen: That's not how it usually works.
Hugh: No it's not. I didn't — I kind of heard back, he was like "Well we'll think about that" or something like that. I didn't hear anything and you know, two months later a review popped up. We had 3 out of 4 stars.
Greg: I'm sorry. That was a very sincere act, it sounds like. Like, "Hey, I would like for you to check my place out."
Hugh: Yeah, it was sincere. It wasn't meant to be flashy, it was almost, "Hey, I would love to get your assessment of what we're doing here. I think we're doing something special, I think it's working, I think people area really appreciating it, and goddamn it we could use the help." Because you know the first year is always hard in a restaurant. Everyone's always like "Oh it must be great to feel like you've opened a new restaurant." And it's like, have you ever dragged your face over gravel? How does that feel? Opening up a restaurant is the hardest thing anyone in our industry will ever do. It's really — There are other industries that are equally as hard, not putting it that way. We work really long, arduous hours, there's so many things happen in the first six months of a restaurant. So, you know, my one investor I had there was thinking, "Why don't you change concepts?" Becuse maybe it wasn't big enough. And I was like, "If we change, I'm gone!" I held the feet over the fire in the right way and won. We got a really good review and then within 12 months I had Dana Cowin calling, and I had won Best New Chef, and you know — those things change restaurants, in some ways for the better. In this one it was definitely for the better. Then two years later I started to get Beard Nominations and things like that. So. That feels like 40 years ago now.
Helen: Do you think there are ways that kind of national attention can change restaurants for the worse?
Hugh: Not really. I mean, I don't know, that's a good question. I don't think so.
Helen: It's probably different now then it was then, too.
Hugh: Yeah, I mean, we didn't have any PR firm, we didn't a marketing firm — we still don't. I don't understand that, the whole chasm of the business. I love the people I know who do that, don't get me wrong. I'm just not your ideal client. We do all that in-house and we always have. But does that type of accolade change a restaurant for the worse? No. I think it's due props if people can get them. And that's the thing in this industry: I'm very blessed, I'm very lucky, and I'm very proud of what I've accomplished, but there's so many people out there who are awesome chefs who we will never read about. We will never hear about. They toil away in kitchens 90 hours a week, and they're equally as good, if not better than me. I'm lucky, we're all lucky. Let's be honest.
Helen: Why do you think it is that we don't hear about them? Do you think that they don't want to be heard about? Or is it a question of the media discovering them? Or what?
Hugh: Are you guys part of the media?
Helen: I guess we are, it's our fault.
Hugh: Because if you look at Eater and Grub Street today, you guys are probably talking about the exact same shit. Then if you go to all the major magazines, they talk about the new restaurants that are opening? You're all talking about the exact same shit. And that comes from publicists, it comes from what's being hyped. It comes from how somebody wants to dream about the next article that they're going to write, because it was conceived and kernalized from something they read that week. That's how it goes.
Greg: With the first restaurant, you talk about that first review. I have an idea about kind of how food media has changed a lot over the last 15 years, but that first review, that first wave, the first accolades you got and the awards, did that keep people coming to the restaurant for years?
Hugh: It's such a small town of 100,000 people and we're very honest. OK, maybe it's 140,000 now. In that, we're a restaurant that has a check average of $53. Okay, so, in a poverty stricken area with a poverty rate of 37 percent, I now appeal probably to about 16 thousand diners. I think it just gave them — I think it made them proud that we're winning stuff, accolades and lauding. They were already believing in us, they were just prideful, so they just kept coming back. I was their kid who was — look, I was never pompous about this. We were just working our asses off. You know when people are working their butts off and you can tell that it's palpably authentic and exciting?
Hugh: It was that type of vibe.
Greg: It's the best feeling to get when you walk into a restaurant.
Hugh: It's the best feeling to get, but you know that feeling.
Hugh: Immediately when you walk in.
Greg: Can't fake it.
Hugh: No you can't. There's all sorts of hype about various restaurants, sometimes we believe it and sometimes it is a complete check when you go there because it's not what the hype, what made you feel. The hype about Rose's Luxury — I was like, eh whatever, I finally went there a month ago. It was phenomenal! Everybody in that restaurant was just so jazzed to be there. The waiters were so smart about it. The cooks in the kitchen just had smiles on their face and they were doing good work. And the food was stupendously good, and it was all without pomp or circumstance. So that was possible. That's what we had going for us. The reviews helped, I mean in all that stuff press helps, but it doesn't help us like it would help you in New York. I think if we had gotten a really bad review, it would have killed us, obviously, but in a smaller setting I don't think a really good review makes you twice as busy, let's say.
Greg: With the second restaurant, what'd you get to do in terms of the food? Did you get to make some changes?
Hugh: Yeah, you conceive different things. The second restaurant was conceived with my friend, one of my cooks at the time and sous chefs, Peter Dale, who's a partner. He's the executive chef at The National. We wanted to make it out to be his baby, and we did. That's his thing. I'm very respective and understanding. I have a team, I use "we" a lot. It's not "I." People correct me because sometimes it is "I," but it's rare, usually it's all "we." It's me and a team of chefs — there are 4 restaurants, each one has an executive chef. Do I make food decisions? Sure. Do I write the complete menu? No way. My job now is to be a baseball manager. I put the team on the field. I figure out when the clean-up hitter is doing well and when he's not. I put the relief pitcher in. That's my job. I'm managing more than ever.
Greg: I've always wondered this, with chefs like you who have multiple restaurants, different executive chefs at the different restaurants — but there's something culinary-wise that is indicative of something you started, or something —
Hugh: You've got to understand the theme. You've got to understand the gestation of that restaurant, and how it came to be, and what the idea behind it was. There's a core idea — and sometimes we haven't been totally true to it and we've had to correct ourselves. Five & Ten's in a loftier place with more ambitious food than ever because of Jason Zygmont who's there now as a young chef. His food is still — it pulls the heart-string of what I want it to be, it still follows the path I want it to take. The service, the conception, the warmth behind it is all — it's not my idea, but it's my execution.
Helen: How often are you in the kitchen?
Hugh: Not much.
Helen: But you cook at home a lot, right?
Hugh: I cook at home a ton. A, because I have two kids. But B, because I write cookbooks, I test for restaurants and for magazines, do all this stuff; for corporates or whatever it is. I work out of my home office, my assistant and I do. And that's where a lot of it happens, we got a really good kitchen at home.
Helen: So have you always been a home cook? Or is that something that evolved out of being a restaurant cook?
Hugh: No, totally evolved out of being a restaurant cook.
Helen: They're really different.
Hugh: It is really different, but I think you're seeing more interplay between the two. My food at home is probably most reminiscent of something like Sqirl in LA, than [my] restaurants. Really fun rice bowls and beautiful different plays on proteins where the actual proteins much a lesser element than the amount of vegetables surrounding it, etc., etc.
Helen: You have this anecdote in the introduction to The Broad Fork, your vegetable centric cookbook, where you talk about your neighbor asking you what to do with a kohlrabi, and you're like "Oh just roast it." And he's like "No, I want you to give me, like, a cheffy answer."
Helen: Do you feel that there's this expectation that you cook really cheffy, restauranty food at home?
Hugh: There is. The food I cook at home is very tied to my philosophy of the moment, has been of the moment for the last 5 years, which is separated from the restaurants. Which is this belief that America has forgotten how to cook, I want to prove to them that they can cook really affordably, healthy, and awesome food that isn't that complicated and doesn't take an amount of time. That's my task everyday in the kitchen now at home, which is to prove that first to myself and then be able to spill those beans to everybody else.
Helen: Are you the only one who cooks in your family?
Hugh: No, my wife cooks a little bit, she's a good cook. The kids cook a little bit, they're dangerous.
Helen: How old are they?
Hugh: They're 10 and 12.
Helen: That's a learning how to cook age. You were cooking when you were 14.
Hugh: Yeah, no, I mean they're skilled, they know what they're doing. These are kids are kids who know how to make a vinaigrette from scratch, they've got life skills. And they're life skills that never go away. So I think that's — we're also addressing that, passionately, which is that we've created a charitable organization dedicated to creating a Home Ec curriculum, to swap out with the current Family and Consumer Sciences curriculum —
Greg: That's amazing.
Hugh: — to build life skills like how to poach an egg
Greg: What's the name of the organization?
Hugh: Seed Life Skills. We're falling under a group called Captain Planet, we've just really started, we're just hiring somebody. It's 12 components, everything from why and how you hem a pair of pants or sew on a button, to how to poach an egg. Say that how to poach an egg would finish with a 20 minute video from Jacques Pepin showing you how to poach an egg. And maybe next week is Tom Colicchio showing you how to make a really simple salad dressing. It's not skills to create chefs, it's skills to create better citizenry. Because when you get to twenty, and the hardest point of your life, if you know how to make rice — not minute rice, rice — and you know how to make a vinaigrette, roasted carrots, and crisp tofu in the oven, you can probably live a lot better life, right?
Helen: Yeah, and it costs about the same.
Hugh: It costs about the same as a Happy Meal. This whole argument, that people are like, "well good food is expensive," I call BS on that. I just don't think that's true. Yes, caviar and foie gras are expensive, yes wagyu beef is expensive, but good rice, and good tofu and good carrots are not expensive. Even at the farmer's market.
Helen: Sewing on a button too, I mean it's not food but —
Hugh: Nobody knows how to do it anymore.
Helen: — I was literally, this is so Little House on the Prairie, I was literally darning my husband's socks a couple of weeks ago, because one of his socks had a hole in it. He was really pissed because they were his favorite socks, and I was like "I can sew that closed for you." It was this weird moment where we both realized that we have the skills to make our goods last longer.
Hugh: Yeah. Luckily we're in an age that's starting to treasure goods again. Because we lived in a such a disposable world for so long, where nothing can be fixed. It's just basic, basic skills. How do you roast a chicken well?
Helen: Did you take Home Ec when you were in school?
Hugh: No, I never did.
Helen: Did you Greg?
Helen: I did. In 7th grade. We learned how to sew a pillowcase and make a bundt cake.
Hugh: Do you remember how to make that bundt cake?
Hugh: Beatrice, who's now 12, came home when she was 10 and she was like "We had Home Ec equivalent at school and we learned how to make red velvet cupcakes from an instant mix, and how to make instant croissants from a tube, the dough ones." And they wrapped them in bacon and baked them in the oven.
Helen: That's not Home Ec.
Hugh: That's gross! It's not a life skill! I mean, a life skill is something you will use potentially every day of your life. I don't know if I like bundt cake that much.
Helen: I do remember that learning how to make bundt cake taught me how to measure, and how to read a recipe. I've made bundt cake plenty of times since then, I have no idea if it was that recipe, but I think that might have been the first time I ever made a baked good not from a mix, which was meaningful.
Hugh: Yeah, yeah. Most of America doesn't know that you can make cake from scratch.
Helen: Or that, the thing the cake mix provides to you, the work that it saves is actually the easiest part.
Hugh: Right, pancake mix is just a matter of reaching a little bit more into the cupboard. You still add the egg and the milk, the melted butter.
Helen: They just premixed the flour, baking soda, and sugar for you.
Hugh: Basically you're taking leavener, flour, and the sugar, combing them and selling them for 5 times what it should cost. So, it's not that I don't believe that life can be made a little bit easier by convenience products, but there's so many stupid ones out there. The fact that crumbled feta exists — like do you ever just have that what the fuck moment? Really have you ever tried to crumble feta?
Greg: That was probably some Don Draper marketing conversation that happened.
Hugh: Yeah, in the big room, in Greece.
Greg: In Greece.
Helen: I feel like my hypothesis for stuff like that, for chocolate chips and crumbled feta, and all these things, chocolate chips I think have much more of a function then crumbled feta, but like my guess whenever I see stuff like that is, oh this is the shit that was left at the bottom of the production facility. And they were just like "Oh —"
Hugh: You may be on to something there.
Helen: — we're going to save costs by packaging this as convenience."
Hugh: By selling — Exactly.
Helen: Like how Long John Silvers, I can't believe I know this, you can go there and buy the bits of fried dough from the bottom of the fryer. The crispy bits.
Greg: They call them hush puppies right?
Helen: No, hush puppies are actual hush puppies, they're cornmeal.
Hugh: Did you say that they were —
Helen: He was giving you a death stare.
Hugh: A hush puppy is a thing of beauty.
Greg: I just remember that. I know, I know, hush puppies are delicious and a southern delicacy. I seem to recall that they had them there.
Helen: They do, they sell hush puppies,
Hugh: Yeah they do.
Helen: But you can also get, it’s just —
Hugh: This is fryer bits.
Helen: — fryer bits. It's the same idea as the crumbled feta. It's like, oh, there's this shit at the bottom, let's package it. And then it probably took off and they were like oh no people want us to pre-crumble their feta. Then all the feta became pre-crumbled.
Hugh: Became pre crumbled.
Greg: It's a very sinister version of — we were chatting with Dan Barber a few weeks ago about his WastED pop up.
Greg: They're selling the waste.
Hugh: Which is great.
Helen: Which is great from a business perspective but then when you package it as a time-saver people think that that's time that needs to be saved.
Helen: Which is not. It takes all of what, 60 seconds to measure out 3 cups of flour — and like, okay, thank you, you've put it in a plastic bag inside a box.
Hugh: That is unfortunately this — amazingly, corporatized America has made us all feel like morons. We just can't do anything anymore, unless it's spelled out and pictures on the back of a box, it's like, we got no chance. I think my message is: We do have a chance, and you just need to learn how to do things from scratch a little bit and your life will be a lot better.
Helen: You can always opt out.
Hugh: You can always opt out.
Helen: If you really need to save that half second.
Hugh: I'm not saying you can't go and have a fast food meal, I'm not saying that. I'm saying you need to have the, somewhat both worlds, capabilities.
Greg: What recipe in the new book are you most stoked about? To be putting out there in the world?
Hugh: It's divided into seasons, there's a lot of different stuff going on but there's pickles, they're really simple — like spaghetti with arugula pesto, salumi, and parmigiano-reggiano. These are really really simple like 5 ingredient.
Helen: There's something in here I had never heard of before. I don't know if I'm going to even pronounce it right.
Greg: Hush puppies?
Helen: Hush puppies! Yakin, Yacon?
Hugh: Yacon, which is a Peruvian ground tuber. It tastes like a cross between potato and Jícama. There's one farmer who farms, a lot of edible bamboo, yacon, stuff like that, it's crazy, weird strange tubers. They're really good! Really good.
Helen: Do you cook them with bacon? Do you do like bacon and yacon?
Hugh: Bacon yacon? No I haven't gotten that phonetic.
Helen: You should do that, it would be hilarious.
Hugh: Yeah. Phonetic direction.
Helen: Everyone should make recipes based on fun punning phrases. That's how I feel.
Hugh: Dr. Seuss style, yes. There's 250 recipes, so they're all my favorite? I think I'm supposed to say that.
Helen: I think you're allowed to have favorites in your own cookbook. They don't know. They're not sentient beings, they're not going to love you less.
Hugh: I know. This griddled asparagus, piperade, poached eggs and grits, I made that the other day. It was great. There's just a gazillion things. It's a way to look at things and make sure nothing's going to pulp in your crisper drawer because you have no idea what to do with it.
Helen: I'm really bad at that. Things liquefy in my refrigerator, it's disgusting.
Hugh: Somebody had a good point about living in New York. It's like, you eat out 5 nights a week and so that stuff that actually is in your fridge, is probably going to go bad. Then you buy a bunch of cilantro, you use an eighth of it, what do you do with the rest of it? You guys need a cilantro sharing network.
Greg: I just got a CSA thing, it's a fancy CSA where they give you enough for a few meals. It's like, it impels you to be like "No! I am not going to throw away this ramp! I am not going to throw away this sprig of thyme! I must use it all!"
Hugh: Food waste in America is — Dan's putting a spotlight on it, which is great, because it's disgusting. It's horrible how much food we waste. We could feed our population a number of times over.
Helen: With the stuff we just throw away.
Helen: On that very uplifting note,
Greg: Mm-hmm. Speaking of throwaways.
Hugh: Smile America, smile!
Helen: We have a section of the interview we like to call the lightning round.
Hugh: Oh good. Let it roll.
Helen: Okay, we're going to ask you a bunch of questions, just say the first thing that comes to your mind. We're not going to read any deep psychological insight into this while you're sitting in front of us.
Greg: Helen won't, but I might.
Greg: Question number 1: What is your airport vice?
Helen: Really? I'm already judging you.
Hugh: Bagel in the Delta lounge! They got new toasters, I'm really excited. I spend a lot of time in the Delta lounge.
Helen: What do you put on your bagel?
Hugh: Butter, cream cheese and Jam.
Helen: All at once?
Hugh: Mm-hmm - on an everything bagel.
Helen: That's a lot of things.
Greg: Well he's a chef,
Hugh: I know it's caloric intake.
Greg: He's got lofty ideas about food.
Hugh: I have a fast metabolism.
Helen: When you're on a road trip, what is the album that you blast in your car?
Hugh: "Against Me," the Axl Rose album.
Helen: Do you sing along?
Greg: Awesome. What is your favorite beverage, alcoholic beverage?
Hugh: It depends, there's so many. This time of year, probably just really good white wine.
Helen: If you were not a chef-slash-cookbook author-slash-restaurateur-slash-television personality what would you be doing with your life?
Hugh: Probably in ad sales. Not in ad sales, advertising I guess.
Helen: What's your favorite hockey team?
Hugh: Montreal Canadiens.
Helen: Why are they the best?
Hugh: Well, they're not the best right now, we're losing in 2nd round of the playoffs just like we did last year to the sucky New York Rangers. This year we're losing to Tampa. Tampa shouldn't be good at hockey, all their Canadians are old people. They're usually the best because they're the Montreal Canadiens. Historically they have been the best.
Helen: Is there a hockey team in Georgia?
Hugh: There used to be.
Helen: I'm just assuming you love hockey because you're Canadian by the way. I'm profiling you.
Hugh: I'm actually a huge huge hockey fan.
Greg: Do you like all the classic Canadian things? Do you like poutine?
Hugh: I like poutine. I have poutine rules.
Helen: What are your poutine rules?
Hugh: Not outside of Quebec.
Helen: That's one very good rule.
Greg: Oh you only eat — oh that's brilliant.
Hugh: Poutine is one of those regional things that should never —
Helen: You're a poutine locavore.
Hugh: — it should never be served in Tampa.
Helen: In New Jersey it's called Disco Fries.
Hugh: That's wrong. Disappointing.
Greg: Hey Hugh, thanks so much for stopping by the Eater Upsell today.
Hugh: Good, good, thanks for having me.